Why Sunderland's ownership confusion really does matter - and what needs to happen next

Though it has not been a straightforward couple of months, there remains, you suspect, an overwhelming support for the broad strokes of Kyril Louis-Dreyfus' executive vision for Sunderland.

By Phil Smith
Monday, 6th December 2021, 10:00 am

To modernise the club's operation; to prioritise youth in the transfer market; to establish and protect the pathway of local talent by maintaining and investing in the club's Category One Academy; to move the club towards sustainability and thus protect it as much as possible from the volatility of football and the perils of large debts, as has proved so problematic in the past.

It's worth restating that, when reflecting on the outcome of the club's latest structured dialogue meeting with the supporter collective.

This is not about contesting the vision just outlined - but protecting it.

Maurice (L) and Kyril-Louis Dreyfus (R)

Sunderland knew in advance that they would be asked exactly who earned what share in the club. Ten months on, this knowledge was still not in the public domain, and given that two minority shareholders were recently pictured on club business in Uruguay, it was an entirely fair question to ask.

The carefully worded statement issued in response did not answer that question, other than to stress that Louis-Dreyfus had a controlling stake and the ability to appoint a majority to the board.

COO Steve Davison and Sporting Director Kristjaan Speakman stressed that they reported to Louis-Dreyfus, who ultimately wields executive power at the club.

Davison added that those in day-to-day leadership roles at the club are definitively carrying out Louis-Dreyfus' vision.

This is not contested, and so for many the exact shareholding is if not irrelevant then not a major issue.

But it does matter - for two key reasons.

One is that Sunderland AFC is not just a sporting club but a community institution, and it is fundamentally right that supporters know who owns and who is therefore accountable for its performance and decision making.

None of the ownership group would contest this, given that they have all described themselves as 'custodians' in the past.

It could not be clearer that Louis-Dreyfus himself agrees with this, given that he was moved in the aftermath of the initial meeting to write to supporters and stress that he would provide an update on this 'in due course'.

The issue, he said, was confidentiality clauses around the deal, which presumably refers to non-disclosure agreements signed to pave the way for the takeover.

Why that was deemed necessary remains unclear, but it will be a source of discomfort given the club's recent history, which is the second fundamental reason why this does matter.

That Madrox retained a shareholding in the club was known right from the off, and was broadly accepted, because it was presented that their meaningful involvement in the club was at an end.

Stewart Donald issued a statement stating he would follow from afar (which by and large he has), drawing a clear line between two eras.

Louis-Dreyfus himself encouraged this, saying that the club had been 'asset stripped' and leading an overhaul of the board that appeared to give him total control.

Even when Juan Sartori and Simon Vumbaca (a lawyer with close links to Madrox) returned to that board, there was an acceptance that the minority shareholders would want their voice heard and that, fundamentally, any long-term financial gain would at least mean that the club itself had succeeded under the leadership of Louis-Dreyfus.

But the failures of years gone by remain fresh.

Speaking on Friday, head coach Lee Johnson reflected on one year in charge at the club and admitted he had arrived at 'a big club in a big mess'.

He did not expand on that significantly, but he did not need to.

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An imbalanced senior squad, an academy in need of major attention, a club lightyears behind many competitors on matters such as data analysis and with fractured fan relations.

The progress on these fronts has been encouraging in some areas, though more clearly needs to be done.

Louis-Dreyfus has rarely communicated to fans in any meaningful way, though Friday's events now tell us why. Clearly, he knows that right now he cannot provide satisfactory answers to a number of key questions.

If it feels as if we have not quite been able to move fully into a bold new era, then this is one significant reason why.

Particularly when the statement from the ownership group made clear that all shareholders still provide an input into club matters, even if it is not on a day-to-day, executive level.

This occurs even though, as Davison confirmed in the meeting, the process of fulfilling the stated pledge to repay parachute payments used to purchase the initial purchase of the club by Madrox in 2018 has still not been completed.

The point here is that, yes, the most important thing at Sunderland AFC right now is results on the pitch and more broadly, that Louis-Dreyfus has the power to drive change where and when needed.

But also that the last month or so has underlined that these issues cannot be continuously pushed down the road.

Dips in form, poor results and bumps along the road are an inevitable part of football and cannot be avoided.

To come through those periods you need unity and clarity, and with these issues still unresolved it will be difficult for Sunderland to achieve that entirely.

There were encouraging signs on the pitch in the second half on Saturday, and perhaps the Black Cats will steady their form further and move towards the top two ahead of the January window.

Is Sunderland in a better place now than it was a year ago?

In most places, most definitely so.

And that's why all this matters

Some good work has been done, but there is so much more to do.

At some point, there will be a dip and these tensions will return. That stops Louis-Dreyfus’ revolution really moving through the gears.

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